11:00 - 27th April 2014, by Calum Waddell

The Rocket

The Rocket is already one of 2014's most acclaimed films. Australia's official selection for this year's Academy Awards, and also staking out its place at Sundance, the movie has won a number of festival awards, and has generally been enthused about by critics all around the globe. Kudos, certainly, to its director - the erstwhile documentarian Kim Mordaunt - and his cast, who present a well-played and beautiful-looking tale of family friction amid the highlands and highways of Laos. Indeed, this is a stunning story to look at. Aesthetically, it is difficult to imagine The Rocket being bettered insofar as its use of Laos and the nation's breathtaking mountainous regions and lush forestry. Mordaunt's cinematographer, Andrew Commis, certainly deserves a shout-out here: his colourful precision and frequent long shots of eye-opening natural habitat are likely to convince anyone that a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia should take in a few days in this often overlooked Buddhist kingdom.

Yet, arriving in the UK with the weight of so much artistic aplomb from the critical community, one might be expecting The Rocket to also sketch out a story that supports its onscreen wonders. Well, this is where disappointment might set in. Written by Mordaunt, the screenplay on offer is serviceable, but provides very few thrills and falls prey to narrative inevitability. A common criticism of Hollywood filmmaking is how 'excessively obvious' it is - the hero wins the day, plot threads are concluded tidily, and set pieces are to put generic use... The Rocket is really not much different.

Our protagonist is a ten-year-old boy called Ahlo (brilliantly essayed by Sitthiphon Disamoe), who is considered by his family to bring bad luck. He was a twin, which, according to local superstition, results in negative energy, and therefore seeks to redeem himself by building a rocket. The missile is to be detonated at an annual festival celebrating explosives. The child hopes that his own creation will be the standout event and, ultimately, show his relatives that he is not in fact cursed.

Now guess the ending.

So, yes, The Rocket is sentimental. It is predictable. Moreover, that big sweeping statement of weepy-eyed wispiness never really pays-off. The metaphor is there - it is blatant: Laos was the most bombed country during the Vietnam War. It even holds the dubious record for the most bombed country, per capita, on the planet. When America decided to create its South Vietnam puppet state and start an ill-advised and destructive conflict against Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam, the violence spiralled into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos - both countries used as supply routes to the Viet Minh independent fighters. America's attack on Laos left the small nation in a state of disrepair that still lingers to the present day. A poor country, with a small economy, post-war Laos fell into a human rights catastrophe - not entirely helped by the government's decision to slaughter the Hmong people who had fought against the communists with the backing of the US army. This background is essential to The Rocket and its conclusive sight of an explosion erupting into the skies - a feeling of redemption and even revelation in a country with a tragic past. It utilises the demons of the past to - literally - spark a celebration of the present.

The emotional proposition of The Rocket - a young boy as symbolism for country and a new generation that can, and perhaps will, reach for the skies - is interesting and involving. Further, the backdrop to all of these events is well considered: a government plan to flood a village, which instigates a mass exodus of people who already have very little. The peasants are notified of this when they are shepherded into a small cabin and played a documentary on a television set. Their opinions, thoughts and feelings are not asked for nor considered. Nevertheless, it is this moment that is actually The Rocket's most effective.

The journey of Ahlo and his family across often hazardous terrain is vibrantly shot and related, but Mordaunt occasionally stages a set piece that jars with the overriding tone of po-faced drama. The sequence in which Ahlo's mother is suddenly killed by a canoe of belongings - accidentally dropped from uphill - comes from nowhere, but wouldn't be out of place in a Final Destination film. The result is actually quite comical where it should be tragic. Were this a major American movie the sequence would undoubtedly become a YouTube sensation (probably set to some deliberately inconvenient pop music). The same criticism can be launched - pun intended - at the rocket festival itself: with villagers falling from the top of makeshift scaffolding as they desperately try and ignite their homemade explosive. It should be harrowing, but it never quite obtains this impact because the horrors that Mordaunt aims for are disguised in fleeting faraway shots and screams of plummeting actors. It is all a bit too Tom and Jerry.

All of this probably sounds too harsh. And in a way it is, because The Rocket is still a must-see movie. It is so stunningly visualised that everyone should experience it. On the big screen, it provides extraordinary eye-candy and should have anyone with any soul enthusing about a trip to Laos. Therefore, it is perhaps because of these lofty technical achievements that we cannot help but feel a little downcast about the narrative of The Rocket. In short: it just never takes off the way one hopes.

Aesthetically igniting, The Rocket is beautiful to look at, but there's not too much to chew on aside from the beauty of the Laotian surroundings...
SCORE: 3.5/5
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